12 Animal Hieroglyphs and How the Ancient Egyptians Used Them

The first in a three part series on Egyptian hieroglyphs, this article reveals the meaning and some fascinating facts about animal hieroglyphs the ancient Egyptians used in their writing and art.

Jan 13, 2020By Nicole B. Hansen
man-offering-foreleg-ox-hieroglyph-egyptian
Man offering the foreleg of an ox

 

This is the first article in a series of three that will teach you about the translation of some hieroglyphs, their meanings in the Egyptian written language, and some fun and interesting facts about the things they depict. This article will deal with animals, real and fantasy, as well as animal body parts, following articles will discuss people and objects.

The ancient Egyptians were keen observers of the natural world in which they lived. They worshiped deities in the form of animals. Meat from animals was an important food source. And certain animals could even pose threats to their life and livelihoods. Not surprisingly, animals served as one of the most important sources for hieroglyphic characters, and Egyptian scribes often reproduced the appearance of animals in the most minute details of their appearance and behavior.

 

1. Sacred Ibis

Statuette of a man worshiping Thoth as an ibis

 

This hieroglyphic sign depicts the sacred ibis (Threskiornis aethiopicus) of ancient Egypt, perched on a stand normally used to hold symbols of deities. The Egyptians wrote the word meaning “ibis” and the name of the god Thoth with this sign. Thoth was the patron of wisdom and learning.

Egyptians offered ibis mummies to this god. They buried 4 million of these ibis mummies at Saqqara alone! When archaeologists have unwrapped or x-rayed these bird mummies, they sometimes found only a few bones or nothing at all. Priests tried to pass these fakes off on unsuspecting worshippers.

The sacred ibis disappeared in Egypt over 150 years ago, probably due to the loss of marshlands in the Egyptian Delta. You can still see it in many other places in Africa and beyond.

 

2. Baboon

Statue of Thoth as a baboon

 

This hieroglyph shows an angry baboon and words associated with rage included this sign. Sometimes the god Thoth also appeared as a baboon. Baboons likely slept on the cliffs overlooking the Nile Valley and therefore the Egyptians associated them with the rising sun.

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3. Scarab Beetle

Scarab seals

 

This sign depicts the scarab beetle, used to write the word “to become.” The scarab beetle has a peculiar habit of rolling up a ball of dung. The Egyptians thought a scarab was responsible for rolling the rising sun above the horizon. Archaeologists find amulets representing scarabs at every archaeological site. The amulets served as a kind of seal or stamp. An official would press it in a piece of clay or mud and then use it to seal a document or a door.

 


Scarab Inscribed for the God’s Wife Hatshepsut

 

4. Horned viper

Horned viper hieroglyph, phonetic value “f”, (19 in Gardiner’s Sign list), from Senusret I White Chapel at the Karnak Open Air Museum

 

The hieroglyph depicting the deadly horned viper was an alphabetic sign for the letter “f.” It also inexplicably appears at the end of the word for “father.” The horned viper has two protrusions on the top of its head that look like horns. It is a highly venomous snake that hides in sand and can kill a man with its poison. Therefore, during some periods, scribes mutilated the sign so it could not come to life and magically kill the reader of a text.

 

5. Gecko

A gecko in an Egyptian house

 

This sign represents a gecko and is used to write the word “many” or “numerous.” It comes as no surprise as the Egyptians would have seen them everywhere. Geckos are still found in nearly every house and apartment in Egypt. They live behind furniture and scurry over the walls and ceilings making a noisy clicking sound. The Egyptians thought they were poisonous, a belief that may have some basis in fact because they can carry salmonella. A papyrus containing medical advice on snakes included them as a snake with legs.

 

6. Great bird

Sculptor’s model of a swallow

 

The sign depicting a swallow was used to write the word “great” and the sound wer. Birds form one of the most numerous categories of hieroglyphs. They carved hieroglyphs of domestic and wild birds, some of which were migratory birds that wintered or passed through Egypt. The stars in the sky were associated with swallows and the Egyptian Book of the Dead contained a spell to transform the dead person into one of these stars.

 

7. Bad Bird

A real life sparrow in a hollow in a temple wall

 

Yet another common bird hieroglyph was what Egyptologists call the “bad bird.” Scribes used the sparrow hieroglyph to write words for small, bad or negative things and concepts. Sparrows were one of the worst pests in ancient Egypt. They ate the grain grown to make bread and beer, the foundation of the Egyptian diet. You can tell the difference between this bird and the previous bird by the shape of their tails. The swallow tail is forked while the sparrow is rounded.

 

8. Seth

Seth with a human body

 

This sign shows the god Seth, who represented evil and bad things. In Egyptian mythology, Seth murdered his brother Osiris, the king, in order to steal the throne from him. Osiris’ son Horus avenged his death and therefore all kings of Egypt identified themselves with Horus. We don’t know what animal the Seth is actually supposed to represent, but some think it looks like a cross between an aardvark, a donkey, a giraffe, a pig or even a jackal.

 

9. Cow Heart

Heart of a man being weighed against a feather on a scale

 

Many hieroglyphs are depicted with animal body parts, particularly those of cattle. The hieroglyph shows a cow’s heart, something that Egyptians would have been familiar with through butchery. In fact, animal body parts were frequently used to represent human body parts in writing. When they mummified the dead, priests removed the brain through the nose because they thought it had no function. Instead, they thought the mind was in the heart. On judgment day, the gods weighed a man’s heart in a scale against a feather to see if he had committed good deeds in his life. Illustrated papyri of the Book of the Dead often show this moment. The scales used to depict justice today originate in this popular ancient Egyptian scene.

 

10. Foreleg of an Ox

Man offering foreleg of ox

 

The most prized meat in ancient Egypt was beef, with the right foreleg being considered the choicest cut. Scribes used the hieroglyph representing the foreleg of an ox to write words like “strength” and “power. It also could refer to the cut of meat itself. It was the preferred offering to the dead, as artists frequently depicted in tomb scenes.

 

11. Bee

Bee hieroglyph

 

Is one of the hieroglyphic signs you will see most often if you visit ancient Egyptian temples. The bee was used to refer to the King of Lower Egypt, part of the title the “King of Upper and Lower Egypt”, meaning the pharaoh. Lower Egypt was in the northern part of Egypt, where the Nile fanned out into a lush Delta rich in farmland. This farmland provided a food source for bees, who the Egyptians kept for their honey, which was used to sweeten foods.

 

12. Barbus bynni fish

Bronze figurine of fish

 

This sign was included in the word “taboo.” The general population, including the men who built the tombs in the Valley of the Kings, ate a lot of fish. However, priests or those who entered the royal palace were forbidden to eat fish. There were other taboos that were described using this hieroglyph, such as eating pork, excrement or urine, stealing offerings to the gods and goddesses from the temples. Even the dead considered walking upside down in the afterlife as a taboo.

By Nicole B. HansenNicole B. Hansen received her PhD and MA in Egyptology from the University of Chicago and her BA in Egyptology from UC Berkeley. She worked for the Giza Plateau Mapping Project at the Giza Pyramids and for the Theban Mapping Project’s Cairo office. She taught courses on Egyptian art, language and culture at the University of Chicago, the American University in Cairo and Amideast. She has a special interest in the continuity of ancient Egyptian culture until the present day, animals, medicine, magic and culinary history and lives in a village in Luxor a short distance from the archaeological sites.